Keeping Students and Schools Connected as Remote Learning Continues

Evelyn Ford, Scarlet Staff

Jennifer Stanbro, librarian at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland, Maine hangs up the phone and sits back in the chair of her makeshift office she has put together in her bedroom. She has just finished helping a Skillin student get onto her device. Since South Portland Schools closed on March 23rd, Stanbro has been working remotely to ensure all 375 Skillin students have working devices and technological support.

“We have provided families who need them with devices, iPads for K-2 students, and Chromebooks for students in grades 3-5. But the real challenge is providing tech support for families to get logged on and navigate the various platforms we are using to connect,” says Stanbro.

As schools across the country transition to remote learning, school administrators and teachers in the Portland area are faced with the same concern: how to get all students online for classes and navigate the world of remote education.

In Portland and South Portland, Maine superintendents made the announcement that classes are to continue online for the rest of the school year on April 8th. Both cities successfully got all their students online, but now that online classes are to continue concerns about adequate support and communication have arisen.

“It’s going to get much harder to stay connected with students and families,” says Bethany Connolly, principal at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland. “It’s unreasonable to expect families to transition to working at home, cope with possibly losing jobs, and home-school their kids.”

Similar thoughts are echoed across the grade levels. “One of the hardest things is just how dispersed and isolated you feel,” says Derek Piece, principal at Casco Bay High School in Portland. “Kids who struggle in school typically have a harder time in remote learning because they need connection. They may not be very good at seeking help and they can disappear. It’s harder for us as teachers to reach students.”

Over two weeks in March, schools in Portland and South Portland mobilized to make sure that all students had access to devices. For Skillin Elementary School, that meant collecting surplus iPads and Chromebooks for students without personal devices, organizing socially distant pickup, and even saw teachers and administrators hand delivering devices to students at their homes.

At the high school level, where students receive Chromebooks, mobilizing meant replacing broken or missing devices. Additionally, the Portland Public School District bought 1000 WiFi hotspot devices to loan to families without access.

For families, the transition brought an altogether new set of struggles. “At first we tried to stick to a strict schedule to keep some normalcy, but we quickly morphed out of that,” says Kendra Allen, a mother of two elementary school students in Portland. “It started out with me trying to keep things in line with what they were doing at school. Now it’s really them managing their own time.”

Parents may be coping with their own transition to online work or coping with getting furloughed while trying to manage their children’s education. With all of the new challenges presented at home teachers and administrators are learning to adapt as it becomes clear that keeping a schedule similar to school is impossible.

“It can be challenging for kids to work productively at home for various reasons. We can try to mitigate those as best we can, but it’s a challenge. You can figure out a lot in a conversation with a student at school, but it’s harder to have those conversations remotely,” says Pierce.

Schools are working to find a balance between giving a student the most education possible and not overwhelming them or their families.

“We’re learning more and more that remote learning doesn’t mean replicating a school day,” says Connolly. “Kids aren’t going to sit and do remote learning activities for six hours. I think even three hours is a challenge. We have to be thoughtful in our planning in terms of what are reasonable expectations.”

Part of those reasonable expectations is coming to terms with the difficult reality that it may not be possible to keep all students connected for the duration of the school year.

“As students’ family situations change, their housing, childcare, and wellness circumstances may influence student’s ability to stay online. Educators in our district are working together to build accessible learning opportunities that are flexible enough to work for our students’ diverse and changing home environments,” says Stanbro.

Keeping students and teachers connected as remote learning persists will be difficult, but administrators are holding out hope.

“We rely on so much collaboration between students, between teachers, and between students and teachers,” says Pierce. “I hope the community stays cohesive and that people feel cared about and known.”